It would be great if we could be seen less like a number and more like a person with depth and experience to add to the conversation.
When I look back over moments of my life, I would have to say that I’ve found myself in spaces that were predominantly Black. See I grew up in Southeast, DC (On MLK Ave., to be exact). If you were to go there today it would still be the chocolate city, with sprinkles of gentrification on its outskirts. When I was about 5 years old I moved to Virginia and commuted to my school in DC because VA wanted me to redo first grade because I wasn’t old enough. My parents were like F that, so we commuted on the metro until I was old enough and then I just switched to a VA school.
Moving to Virginia was the first time I would say that I experienced teachers that did not look like me and thus the dynamic shift of being in the minority happened. Moving to Virginia made me feel different in ways hard for a 5-year-old to explain. I just knew that the area where my teachers were different, my neighbors were different, made me feel like the thing that didn’t belong was me.
My parents decided to leave Virginia because their taxes suck and ended up in PG County, MD. I was back with those that looked like me and teachers that for the most part did as well. When I was 14 my parents decided to move to Frederick, MD and then finally at 16 we moved to Hagerstown, MD. The world for me shifted once again and I began to notice more and more that feeling of smallness I once felt as a child in Virginia. Being a Black girl in heart what felt like White America was intimidating, but it prepared me well for the world I would step into once I left for college and started working.
My work career placed me in spaces where I was one of “blank.” When I was 16, I got my first job as an administrative assistant for a law firm. I worked there part-time in Bethesda. It was interesting to be one of two people of color in this small office of five. I found no solace in the other person of color as I thought I would because they were so focused on staying one step ahead and keeping their job to truly be supportive. It also didn’t help that I was the youngest person in the office. I learned early on what it meant to be pitted against each other in the office, even though the person pitting us was the other person of color.
It made me wonder where the sense of community was? What did that person deal with in their close to 40 years of life that caused them to react in such a visceral and underhanded way to someone who came from the same place? What I learned is that all black skin ain’t the same. Just because we look the same, it doesn’t mean that we have the same understanding of support. I also learned that being one of “blank,” places a strain on those individuals in a minority. It can be isolating within itself. For some, they choose to distance themselves from their diversity in order to fit into the majority. That often leads to tokenism within spaces. For others who lean into being the “other”, they look to gravitate those that look like them for survival.
At this time, I combatted my college experience, which was 90% white and 10% other, with maybe 3% of that being Black. During that time I learned what community really felt like in a space that wasn’t built for you. I remember not feeling space 100% of the time. I remember the security guards not speaking people of color on campus. I think the greatest moment of the divide was when Barack Obama won the presidency the first time. My group of friends took off running around campus in our elation of our first Black president. I mean we were so excited to see someone that looked like us win the highest honor in our minds. To this day, what stands out in my mind was the number of white class members that looked at us with sorrow in their eyes. It’s a feeling I will never forget as it stands out to me as a time where it felt like an “us vs. them.” It was a time where I completely felt like I was outnumbered, and like the “other.”
Now in my 30s, I look back at all of my experiences being one of two or three or even a small group out of thousands. It begs the question: what is diversity? What does diversity mean to communities, educational institutions, workplace environments? How are we defining diversity? Is it defined by race, ability, gender, economic status? Who is responsible for defining diversity? And once diversity criteria are defined who is responsible for helping to maintain, nurture, and develop that diversity? If we are honest in our assessment of diversity within the above-mentioned spaces we will note that most places look for diversity as a way to maintain financial gains and other kickbacks, many places don’t even consider diversity because their structures are filled with the same kind of people from the same places, and lastly many structures achieve diversity on paper but lose it quickly because of lack of understanding.
If I talk about my own experiences with diversity, I have to go back to school.
My first experience with Black male teachers only came in the musical setting. I have never had a Black male teacher, teach me anything but music. Not even in college. All of my teachers have either been white or Black women. Within the workplace, all of my bosses, direct reporting, have been white and my last three have been women. In my 16 years of working experience, only two of my jobs have had Black women in leadership level positions; by leadership, I mean chief level position. In a previous position, I was one of four people of color. Every person of color with the exception of one quit, all due to issues with a lack of diversity, race, and understanding. Everyone else in leadership was white, regardless of their gender.
In every setting I have participated in I have felt as though I was the “other.” Some spaces have been better at honing into that diversity and not made me feel like my differences are what made me lack, while others have failed miserably. Internally many people of color feel the stigma of needing to fit in, hence code-switching. Others fight against that rhetoric and push to bring their entire selves to these spaces. Either way navigating the consequences of either decision is exhausting. It would be great if we could be seen less like a number and more like a person with depth and experience to add to the conversation.
One day, I hope my race will not be looked at as a hindrance or something that is tolerated in order to check a box. One day, it would be nice not to be just one of “blank.”
If diversity is the newest trend up for discussion, then we have to be honest in what we are looking for and what we can provide. These institutions that have participated in systemic actions that create difficult environments for marginalized communities must create inclusive conversations. This should be an effort that includes multiple voices to build a space where those who are considered “other” can be included in the main conversation. This is the only way to build something for all people.